The Young Officer and the NCO

"...to follow the dictum of the British NCO who, when asked where his officers were, replied, 'When it comes time to die, they'll be with us.'" - Richard A. Gabriel and Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army; 1978


As the battalion had just returned from Korea I heard tales of the Imjin, Seoul, Pusan and the DMZ. I also started to learn the trade of subalterns. I struggled through my first guard mount under the critical eye of the adjutant and the regimental sergeant major. I learned how to be an orderly officer and how to inspect defaulters.

"Look in the pleats of the kilt, sir" the company sergeant major advised me with a twinkle in his eye. "Them folds is always got lint in 'em, you'll catch the buggers on that every time."

I inspected rifles, Bren guns, billets, and vehicles until I could do it in my sleep. 1 learned to behave myself in the mess, I struggled through endless hours of high land dancing, I kept my mess bill down and I became aware of the importance of always standing up when the commanding officer entered the anteroom. I looked at festered feet after route marches, and I watched my platoon drill under a gimlet eyed sergeant. I tried to help with the soldier's problems, motivated at first by the secure knowledge that the company commander would tear me to pieces if he heard about those problems before I did. Then I began to listen to them because I started to realize that this was my family and it was slowly becoming my regiment." - A.H. Matheson, Requiem for a Regiment, the Atlantic Advocate, June 1970


Good young officers who become good old generals are made by good sergeants, … a combination of ill-founded self-confidence, bluff and outstanding support and guidance from a series of unforgettable sergeants allowed me to create an impression of competence. - Major- General Lewis MacKenzie, Peacekeeper, 1993


…decisions are often taken with an eye as to how they will be viewed by reporting officers and thus help or hinder the decision makers future promotion. Often inactivity is the safest course, hoping that "things will sort themselves out". Even in 1944 one eminent British psychologist believed that this was still the rule rather than the exception within the British Army:

NCOs and officers... still do the same stupid things . . . there is a reluctance amongst most officers to delegate responsibility. NCOs and men are very rarely asked to do things on their own initiative. If they are, they hesitate to do anything lest they should do wrong. I think this is largely due to a system which wants to tie down an individual should anything not go according to plan. - Captain R.A.D. Applegate, RA, Why Armies Lose in Battle: An Organic Approach to Military Analysis, Royal United Services Institute, Vol 132, No 4, Dec 87


There is a saying in the Navy that if you want someone to think, ask an officer. But if you want it done, ask a chief...nicely! - Tom Clancy, Marine; A Guided Tour of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, 1996


The care and cleaning of lieutenants is NCO business. - General Frederick J. Kroesen, in "For NCO's: Leadership, Hard Work and TRAINING." ARMY, Oct 1980


As the CSM of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, one of my duties was to give a class to commanders and senior enlisted advisors in the Pre-Command Course, on the subject of officer/NCO relationships and the role of the 1SG/CSM. One of the things I would tell them includes this story:

"During the basic course for brand new lieutenants, the instructor presented them with a problem to solve. They were told that the mission was to erect a flag pole. They had one sergeant and three privates. The lieutenants were given 30 minutes to formulate a course of action, after which the instructor asked for solutions. Each lieutenant explained in detail how the job could best be accomplished. Finally the instructor gave them the right answer: 'Sergeant, I want the flag pole here; I'll be back in two hours to inspect.'" I think that story, true or not, tells us all we need to know about officer/NCO relationships. -CSM Jimmie W. Spencer, letter 1 Sep 1997


A new lieutenant is a precious thing.... Don't take advantage of him, but train him, correct him when he needs it (remembering that diplomacy is part of your job description), and be ready to tell the world proudly that he's yours. If you are ashamed of him, maybe it's because you've neglected him or failed to train him properly. Do something about it. Show a genuine concern that he's learning the right way instead of the easy way. But be careful not to undermine his authority or destroy his credibility. Remember that order and counter-order create disorder.... As the senior and most experienced NCO in the platoon, you must pass on the benefit of [your] wisdom and experience to your platoon leader as well as to the soldiers. - 1SG Jeffrey J. Mellinger, "Open Letters to Three NCOs." Infantry, May-Jun 1989


Hollywood knows there's something about a sergeant. When you see a television show or a movie, the camera may focus on the officers. You know the stereotypes: the rookie lieutenant, the aggressive colonel, the intellectual general. But I guarantee you, somewhere in that presentation will be a tough old sergeant, with hashmarks up to the elbow. He stands for experience, common sense, and wisdom. He's Gary Cooper in Sergeant York or James Earl Jones in Gardens of Stone. He is Lou Gossett in An Officer and a Gentleman, telling candidate Mayo that the service is not about flying airplanes, it's about character.... For America, the sergeant is the Army. - Gen Gordon R. Sullivan, address "America’s Noncommissioned Officer Corps- into The 21st Century." Speech File Service, 2nd Quarter, Fiscal Year 1994


A Platoon Commander who joins a platoon for the first time will normally have over 150 years experience among his Warrant Officers, Sergeants, Junior NCOs and men. Use them, seek and accept advice from them but remember one thing; it is you the Platoon Commander, the leader that must make the final decision. MWO G.R. Smith, CSMI Leadership Wing

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